Biases of Science Fiction

Most visions of the future are found in science fiction stories.   In 1990 science fiction author (and physicist) John Cramer described the "basic incompatibilities between good story telling and accurate prophecy":

A good story needs conflict and dramatic tension. A fictional technology with too much power and potential, too much "magic", can spoil the tension and suspense. The "future" as depicted in an SF story should be recognizably like the present to maintain contact with the reader. Most SF stories depict straightforward extrapolations from the present or the past, with relatively few truly radical changes, so that the reader is not lost in a morass of strangeness. To achieve good characterization the writer must focus on a small group of people, yet most real revolutions, technological or otherwise, involve thousands of key players. The intelligence and personality integration of fictional characters cannot be much higher than that of the writer, yet enhanced intelligence may be an important aspect of the nanotechnology revolution to come.   The track record of SF writers as prophets, operating within these constraints, has not been impressive.

I’d love to see a more detailed analysis along these lines.  (This appeared in Foresight Update, two issues before my first idea futures publication.)

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  • Why think that nanotechnology will lead to “enhanced intelligence?” Isn’t this just another version of naive utopianism that afflicts the us whenever new, disruptive technology is introduced.

  • Anders Sandberg

    There is another source of bias that I usually call “the Hollywood meme”. A story that evokes stronger emotions will be better remembered and more likely to be either reproduced (i.e. told to other people) or referred to (which may lead to consumption of the original story). A story with strong engagement will hence tend to become more widely known than a low engagement story, ceteris paribus. Hence sampling stories will more likely find stories with strong emotional themes, and to the extent a property (like truth) of a story is anticorrelated with this emotionality it will be underrepresented.

    Coincidentally I just spent the evening looking at depictions of cognitive enhancement in sf, for a bibliography I’m preparing. The number of good intelligence augmentation stories appears to be surprisingly low despite being a “classic” sf theme.

  • Eric, yes, nanotech itself is a long way from enhanced intelligence.

    Anders, yes, a good rule of thumb: real future events will be less emotionally laden than story events.

  • David Brin asked me to post this comment for him:

    There is a site that attempts to track modern events/trends that were first mentioned in science fiction. A crude early attempt at a prediction registry. More specific are two fan wikis tracking “successful predictions” from my own novel EARTH. and

    I have long agreed with you that the needs of Romantic Fiction make it emphasize individual solipsistic views of problem solving and downplay team efforts. It also dramatizes pure and nightmarishly recognizable evil vs stereotypically handsome good, generally inherited.

    Alas, this has turned Hollywood – and many SF novels – into unwitting propaganda engines against the core Enlightenment value of calm negotiation and pragmatic teamwork. I go into this a bit at:

    As far as cognitive enhancement is concerned, the classic novel is CAMP CONCENTRATION. Then there are the ubermenschen novels of AE Van Vogt and Orson Scott Card that portray demigod characters who are vastly smarter than common sheep humanity… part of a very wide and deep tradition that flatters the reader into identifying with homo superior.

    Intelligence augmentation has occurred, but in our aggregate abilities as a society, far more than anyone’s individual IQ. That is where our most intense further efforts should go.

  • Anders Sandberg

    Yes, collective intelligence enhancement looks like it has greater potential than individual enhancement both in the sense of having more low-hanging fruits and enabling some entirely new capabilities. But slightly better working memory or attention is probably nothing to sneeze at. People often underestimate the power of incremental small changes, especially when they affect many domains simultaneously.

    The problem with tracking successful predictions is that it does not track unsuccessful predictions, or the cases where the fictional idea inspires a real invention. Maybe we need to have a standard semantic web markup of sf stories that enables us to search for predictions and get estimates of who is the best prognosticator? But the problem is that predictions are seldom precise or often use a within-story terminology making them hard to find or tie to the right real-world concept (is the datanet of Ted Chiang’s novellette Understand a prediction of the WWW or just a mention of the Internet?).

  • michael vassar

    Anders: What is the basis for your conclusion that collective intelligence enhancement has more low hanging fruit and greater potential. This seems to me to be an entirely open question. Furthermore, like “nature vs. nurture”, the duality is to some extent inane. Many individual cognitive enhancements, including but not limited to all those which improve communication abilities, function substantially through enhancing the capacities of collectives.

    Robin and Eric: It seems to me that even rudimentary molecular nanotechnology is not very far from respirocytes and other simple instances of nanomedicine which can be expected to improve cognition slightly through improved health, greater tissue oxygen availability, etc. If we don’t have good gene therapy vectors by then we should rapidly acquire them as well, suggesting the possibility of many genetic improvements. The adverse effects of performance enhancing drugs such as some stimulants may become much easier to prevent as well.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Michael, great post bump.

  • Brian Moore

    Robin, the the David Brin essay you link, eventually an author wrote exactly the sort of “mirror Tolkien” novel that you and Mr. Brin would be interested in, Jacqueline Carey’s “The Sundering”. I enjoyed it a great deal.

  • I second the recommendation of Carey’s “The Sundering”. Reading it, I thought to myself, “This is the way the Lord of the Rings really happened.”

  • Max

    I totally agree with you